From approximately 1978 to 1995, polybutylene pipes more commonly known as “poly blue” were commonly used for water lines. It was inexpensive and inexpensive to install, and was considered the “best alternative” as a replacement for copper plumbing in homes and businesses. You see it most often in the southern and western states of the US, what they call the “sun belt” states. Most tubes of this type have a dull gray or white finish. If you do a little research, you will find that many housing and construction experts estimate that it was installed in up to 10 million homes. That’s roughly one in every 5 houses built during those years.
Do you have a blue polyethylene pipe? Well the easiest way to tell is that blue poly groundwater pipe is usually blue, but there is a chance it is gray or black and still polybutylene. You may have to ask a plumber, as gray and black pipe can also be what they call “black polyethylene” (a completely different pipe composition). Often times, blue polyethylene is found where the plumbing reaches your home or at the water meter. You may see it next to your water heater or next to toilets or sinks.
Why are blue polyethylene pipes no longer popular or used? Two words: pipeline failure and lawsuits. In fact, the manufacturer of blue polyethylene, Shell Oil Company, will no longer accept claims for damages through its blue polyethylene class action lawsuit as of May 1, 2009. Why are the pipes failing? While there does not appear to be an absolute definitive cause, most believe it to be the chemicals in the water, such as chlorine over time. Blue polyethylene tubing becomes brittle and pieces of it come off, and fittings often crack, sometimes with very small cracks.
In the first troubled years, the lawsuits alleged that the cause was improper installation, but experts testified that “increased use of chloramines accelerates the corrosion and degradation of some metals and elastomers common to distribution plumbing.” So you can imagine that if you buy a house in the Sun-Belt region of the USA that was built in the 80s or 90s, one of the first things to check is if the pipe has any blue polybutylene pipe. . Don’t trust a building inspector to tell you, call a certified plumber.